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Stacks have no Outside


It was a quote that rolled by on Twitter the other day:

“Don’t skate to where the puck is going to be, skate to where hockey is going to be invented.”

While the speaker probably intended this to be a sign of energy and a singular commitment to disrupt the status quo with a completely new technology, I took it as a signal of a bubble that was about to burst. In the previous dot com era, there was the joke:

“If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.”

The fiction was created that one’s work is one’s life and that the two never need be in balance because they are one and the same. The current saying about hockey implies that if you are smart enough and work hard enough you can create a paradigm shift in the way technology is used and the way people live. You can create a new kind of game.

In 2008, Steve Jobs discussed how he viewed changes in the technology landscape:

“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”

In 1848, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Northern California unleashed the largest migration of people in the history of the United States. What no one told those would-be gold diggers was that by 1850 all of the surface gold was gone. Only the large mining companies using hydraulic water cannons were still able to extract gold from the hills.


Today’s version of the large mining company is what Bruce Sterling calls a Stack. These are the ecosystems that have staked out large sections of the Internet from which they can extract gold.

A Stack doesn’t have to “break the Internet” to do this; it just has to set up the digital equivalent of a comprehensive family farm, so that the free-range cowboys of the Electronic Frontier are left with crickets chirping and nothing much to do. A modern Stack will leverage stuff that has never been “Internet,” such as mobile devices, cell coverage and operating systems.

In order to become a “Stack,” or one of the “Big Five” — Amazon Facebook Google Apple Microsoft — you need an “ecosystem,” or rather a factory farm of comprehensive services that surround the “user” with fences he doesn’t see. Basically, you corral Stack livestock by luring them with free services, then watching them in ways they can’t become aware of, and won’t object to. So you can’t just baldly sell them a commodity service in a box; you have to inveigle them into an organized Stack that features most, if not all, of the following:

An operating system, a dedicated way to sell cultural material (music, movies, books, apps), tools for productivity, an advertising business, some popular post-Internet device that isn’t an old-school desktop computer (tablets, phones, phablets, Surfaces, whatever’s next), a search engine, a dedicated social network, a “payment solution” or private bank, and maybe a Cloud, a private high-speed backbone, or a voice-activated AI service if you are looking ahead. Stack cars, Stack goggles, Stack private rocketships optional.

The goal of a Stack is to eliminate the outside. Once inside the Stack, there should be no outside of the Stack. The horizon of possibility is defined by the Stack. With the twist that the horizon should appear unlimited. The Stack is a place where you should believe that you could skate to where hockey is going to be invented.

Television Signal Path and the Airplay Remote Control


The control systems for television aren’t very good. One reason they persist is that once a viewer is watching a selected program, the control system recedes into the background. In the course of watching a presentation, the essential controls, the ones that control sound (louder, softer, mute), generally work quite well. The rest of the control system is a disaster that people have learned to accommodate. This snarl of technology around controlling a television is generally why people think there’s room for revolutionary innovation in the “battle for the living room.”


Generally there have been a couple of approaches. The universal remote, a complex remote control device that consolidates all of the other remote controls. So instead of having five or six complex remote controls, you have one really really complex remote control. Google TV’s remote control with a keyboard pushes towards the limits of this kind of conceptual framework. The addition of voice command and SIRI is another solution at the limit. The other approach involves creating a “smart” television. This would be accomplished by integrating a Network connected computer into the television device. This new device would make all of the other devices obsolete. Various forms of this device have been foisted upon the public. It’s not that people don’t buy these “smart” televisions, it’s just that no one uses any of their capability.

The solution to this tangle of technology lies in the role of the remote control. The name “remote control” describes what the device does. It takes the control system from the television and allows it to operate at a distance from the television itself. That meant you didn’t have to get up off the sofa and walk across the room to select a program or control the sound volume. The “remote” has essentially provided the same service since it entered the living room in the mid-1950s. Nikola Tesla described its basic operation in a patent application more than 50 years earlier than that. To some extent, even cloud computing is just a variation of the same theme.

It was while researching wireless audio systems for my study that the basic change in the “remote” became clear to me. With all of my music available through a cloud storage system, I didn’t need a music system to decode physical media. From the many choices available, I selected the Bowers & Wilkins A7. It’s a single speaker that sits in a home WiFi network and listens for AirPlay signals. You can send it music via AirPlay from your phone, iPod, tablet or desktop computer—and that music can be stored remotely on the Network. Radio streams, YouTube sound, podcasts, etc. can be also be sent to this audio system. The key is the change in the signal path. The “remote” is no longer just a controller, it’s the receiver/broadcaster of the audio signal. The “stereo system” now listens for AirPlay signals, decodes and presents the sound. I liked this solution so much, I set up my traditional stereo to operate similarly using AirPort Express as one of the auxiliary inputs.


You can see how this model would work for television. Instead of a smart television, you have a dumb television. The big screen does what the big screen does well. It shows high-definition moving pictures synchronized with sound. You can’t solve the “television problem” without changing the signal path. Once the remote control becomes a receiver/AirPlay broadcaster, all the peripheral devices hooked up to your television go away. Even your cable box becomes just another app on your phone or tablet. The interesting thing about this solution is that it doesn’t necessarily disintermediate the cable companies, the premium channels, Netflix, Amazon, Tamalpais Research Institute, Live from the Metropolitan Opera or your favorite video podcast.


In this analysis, the real problem with the television is identified as the HDMI connector. Every device connected to the screen via HDMI wants to dominate the control system of the television; and every HDMI connection spawns its own remote. Once you get rid of the HDMI connector and transform the remote control into an AirPlay receiver/broadcaster, all the remote controls disappear. The television listens for one kind of signal and plays programming from any authorized source. The new generation of wireless music systems have demonstrated that this kind of solution works, and works today. By changing the signal path and the role of the remote, the solution to the problem of television is well within reach.


>> Therefore, Ye Soft Pipes, Play On

The elegies for Steven Paul Jobs come pouring forth. The traditional elements of an elegy correspond to the stages of loss. Grief and sorrow are expressed through a lament; the life of the departed is idealized through admiration and praise; and then comes solace and consolation. As we find ourselves more than midway on life’s journey, the poetic form of the elegy reveals itself as a palpable presence. It’s not a form whose outlines are traced from a recipe extracted from a book, there’s a direct physical encounter with its contours as we stop for a moment, and look across the grain of time.

Businessmen, technologists, and tech bloggers have focused on different aspects of the Jobs legacy. I’d like to turn the spotlight to some of the language used to talk about what made Jobs different: visionary, genius, magic, and of course, crazy. These are words we use to describe something on the other side of the line, something well beyond ordinary grasp. From the stance of the technologist, the business person or the engineer, these are not qualities that can be captured in an algorithm, a spreadsheet or a mechanical device. Jobs appears to be an anomaly, the impossible exception—we shake our heads and say, ” we won’t see his like again.”

Steven P. Jobs wasn’t a hardware engineer, he didn’t write software code, he wasn’t an industrial designer. He didn’t finish college, given his qualifications, he wouldn’t even be considered for the position he held. The common wisdom in the technology community is that great companies start with great engineers—then eventually the suits come in and ruin everything. The technology industry’s utopia is a world run by engineers. Yet, Jobs, who was not an engineer, is acknowledged as the industry’s great visionary.

If we were listening, Jobs told us what he was doing. He explicitly stated that “Apple’s goal is to stand at the intersection of technology and the humanities.” This maxim hasn’t been given due consideration. Jobs restated this idea many times and in different formulations. At the iPad2 launch, he said it this way:

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.”

To the engineers in the crowd, this talk of “singing hearts” must seem like a lot of sentimental hogwash. It’s the nuts and bolts that really make the difference. Technology stands alone, it doesn’t need to marry anyone, or anything, to win the day. Talk of ‘singing hearts’ is just Jobs as salesman, some of that ‘reality distortion field’ stuff.

We strip rhetoric from logic, we limit design to the surface, we consider the humanities to be the frothy nonsense floating at the top of an education that should be devoted to hardcore business and science. It’s the ‘nice-to-have,’ but inessential item on the to-do list. As the center of thought moves further and further in that direction, we lose even the language to describe the kinds of things Jobs accomplished. And while we can’t articulate it, there’s no question that we hear its music.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d;
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

John Keats
Ode on a Grecian Urn

Here’s Jobs talking about his approach in a Fortune magazine interview in 2000:

“We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing,” Mr. Jobs replied. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together. … That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started.”

Here the humanities aren’t the thin layer of frosting spread on top of the core of technology to make it look nice. In a sense, technology is medium through which a fundamentally humanistic vision is expressed. Where the common wisdom is to start with the engineering and the technology, Jobs and the team at Apple start with an act of poetic imagination. The slogan “think different” encapsulates this idea. The ‘difference’ in this kind of thinking is that it starts with the humanities and technology as equal partners in the eventual expression of the product or service. Or as Jobs eloquently describes it, the kernel of the idea “expressing itself in successive outer layers.”

Of all the commentary, it was James B. Stewart’s piece in the New York Times that captured some of the unheard melody, the poetic thinking emanating from the office of the CEO.

“Most people underestimate his grandeur and his greatness,” Gadi Amit, founder and principal designer of New Deal Design in San Francisco, told me. “They think it’s about design. It’s beyond design. It’s completely holistic, and it’s dogmatic. Things need to be high quality; they have to have poetry and culture in each step. Steve was cut from completely different cloth from most business leaders. He was not a number-crunching guy; he was not a technologist. He was a cultural leader, and he drove Apple from that perspective. He started with culture; then followed with technology and design. No one seems to get that.”

It’s hard to find parallels. Braun and Olivetti in Europe had beautiful designs, but never had Apple’s success. Mr. Amit mentioned Italy’s Enzo Ferrari, the racecar driver and founder of the Ferrari sports car manufacturer. “Apple has the status that Ferrari has in Italy,” Ms. Antonelli said. “It’s a source of national pride and of pride for every employee. You get to that stature only if you created something so fundamental that everyone loves.”

Mr. Amit says he believes Mr. Jobs’s legacy will be “the blending of technology and poetry. It’s not about design per se; it’s the poetic aspect of the entire enterprise. Compared to Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, he’s in a different class. I think this is a revolutionary shift. Jobs is a revolutionary character. He shifted the industry and changed our lives through this amalgamation of culture and technology. If you’re looking for C.E.O.’s of this caliber, you have to look outside the engineering and business schools. That is truly revolutionary.”

When we lament that we won’t see another like Steven P. Jobs again, we need to acknowledge the cold, hard facts of the situation. We aren’t looking for people like Jobs to lead our greatest companies. In fact, we’re probably doing everything in our power to make sure that people like him don’t get anywhere near a leadership role. We’ve de-valued and de-funded the humanities, we’ve relegated poetic thinking to third class status.

In 1821 Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “A Defense of Poetry.” Although he never wrote one, the work of Steven P. Jobs was a modern defense of poetry.

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Law of the Instrument: It’s Hammer Time

Abraham Maslow is perhaps better known for the Hierarchy of Needs. When we think about human motivation—what a person might want or do in any given situation—we run the scenario through the Hierarchy of Needs to gauge its relative importance. But Maslow developed another analytical tool that’s also in widespread use. It’s called Maslow’s Law of the Instrument and has to do with over-reliance on a familiar tool.

In conversations about business or technical strategy, it will often emerge in the following formulation:

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Once this incantation is uttered, all around the table nod in agreement. The tool has defined the solution instead of going to the extra effort of finding for the right tool for the job. The job is calling out for the right tool, and you’ve only brought a hammer to the table.

As a worthwhile tangent to this topic, it’s worth exploring the close cousins of the Law of the Instrument: regulatory capture and confirmation bias.

One might imagine that jobs and tools had been split in half by Zeus, and each wandered the earth looking for its perfect other half. Tools, it seems, operate under a well-understood set of modes and rules. If those rules-of-use don’t match up with the job, then the tool is imposing an alien structure on to a job. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve occasionally used a wrench as a hammer to good effect.

When we employ the tactic of the Law of the Instrument, we silence the instrument in favor of the job. The job dictates the dialogue and determines the rules of engagement. Yet when used thoughtlessly, the tactic itself becomes an instrument subject to the Law of the Instrument. Tools, and hammers in particular, often have more to say than our rules of thumb would suggest. For instance there’s a common joke among carpenters:

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a thumb.

When Nietzsche talks about philosophizing with a hammer, he isn’t thinking about nails. He uses the hammer to test idols by tapping them lightly with a hammer, he sounds them out. The hammer is used to determine whether the idols are hollow or intact.

In the Law of the Instrument, it’s not the hammer that creates the limitations. It’s the familiarity, the habit of using a hammer in a particular way. If we approach the hammer with a beginner’s mind and allow its strangeness to surface, we may find our toolbox populated with a whole new set of instruments:

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a mole popping out of one of an immense field of holes.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a rock to be broken on a chain gang.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a carnival game where you have to prove your strength by making a bell ring.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like something to be heated to a red hot temperature and fashioned on an anvil.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a sculpture waiting to be released from a hunk of marble.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem inspires you to hammer out justice, hammer out freedom, hammer out love between your brothers and your sisters all over this land.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a coconut that has yet to give up its meat and milk.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like rice on its way to becoming mochi.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks as though it could be solved by the god of thunder.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem can be solved by tossing the hammer farther than the other guy.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a low-budget, British horror movie.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like one of eighty eight strings on a piano.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like it needs its reflexes tested.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem sounds as though it’s related to the parts of the ear.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like you can’t touch it.

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